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Published: Wednesday, 10/19/2005

China seeks its space

AT FIRST glance, it may seem tough to make a connection between those "Made in China" labels appearing on more and more consumer products and the two Chinese astronauts - make that taikonauts - who were launched into Earth orbit last week.

Peking, however, has a different take on the taikonauts.

China sees space as a way to polish its international image as a technological power and source of high-quality manufactured goods. Every successful flight supposedly enhances the appeal of Chinese products, although low prices probably remain the biggest draw.

This is the second Chinese manned flight. A taikonaut flew solo in 2003. Rest assured, there will be more.

Although current missions rely on old Soviet-era technology, China is building a new family of launch vehicles and plans to use them for manned missions to the moon.

Already the second biggest economy in the world by some measures, China certainly has the economic resources to carry through. Its military spending has more than doubled over the last six years, and military applications of space abound.

Russia also is moving ahead with its own space agenda. Just before launch of Shenzhou 6, a Soyuz spacecraft returned a U.S. astronaut, a cosmonaut, and Russia's latest for-pay space tourist (an American businessman with $20 million for a ticket) from the International Space Station (ISS).

Russian space technology has kept ISS in operation since the space shuttle Columbia disaster in 2003, ferrying people and supplies back and forth.

U.S. dependence on Russia will continue and perhaps grow, thanks to July's near-miss repeat of the Columbia disaster, which grounded the space shuttle fleet until at least next year. Even in the best of circumstances, there will be time and money for precious few flights before the shuttle fleet's scheduled retirement in 2010.

Another accident could easily mean permanent grounding of the shuttles, with America left without its own access to space.

China's space ambitions may be a paper tiger. Russia may continue to be a friendly and obliging partner that gives the United States a lift whenever requested, even if the two countries face off in some future international crisis.

The United States, however, cannot count on either scenario.

Rather, the U.S. Congress must reinvent NASA, refocusing the agency's resources on fast-track development of a new space vehicle to replace the shuttle and sustain our access to space.

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